The spread of lies online is now seen as a bigger threat than terrorism by Americans. While most people wring their hands, two psychologists decided to try to “vaccinate” the public against the spread of lies using a game and are now claiming success from their first large-scale test.
Bad News is an online game where people are encouraged to play at being a baron of online media bullshit. Players win badges and “followers” by using popular techniques such as inducing conspiracy theories, faking photographic evidence, and creating Twitterbots to try to spread false beliefs in the virtual world without overreaching so much their “credibility score” is damaged.
While Bad News has been made fun to try to attract players, the makers' real goal is to “inoculate” people against real lies they are likely to encounter online. They hope exposure to the tools used to spread dishonesty will give people resistance to stronger similar approaches when they encounter them in the wild, just as a weakened strain of a disease vaccinates against the lethal variety.
Participants were asked to rate the credibility of a mix of real and fake headlines on a scale of 1-7 early in the game and after completion. Assessments of real news were unchanged, but players were 10-24 percent less convinced by fake stories afterward, depending on the type of distortion used. The more gullible someone was beforehand, the more they benefited from the experience.
"We find that just 15 minutes of gameplay has a moderate effect, but a practically meaningful one when scaled across thousands of people worldwide, if we think in terms of building societal resistance to fake news," said van der Linden in a statement. The pair note that where previous attempts at psychological inoculation were based around a topic like climate change or vaccine safety, Bad News worked as a “broad spectrum vaccine” against deception.
Of course the study should be treated with the same critical mind the game is trying to instill in its players. As the game's originators Roozenbeek and van der Linden could be expected to be more emotionally invested in the game than researchers without that connection, which could influence their work, even subconsiously. Moreover, while Palgrave Communications is part of the prestigious Nature stable, making it an unlikely candidate to be part of the problem of predatory journals - which might be a topic for future versions of the game to tackle - but it is too new to have an impact factor that can help readers determine a publication's credibility.
The authors themselves acknowledge that the self-selecting, and in some ways very unrepresentative, nature of their sample casts doubt on the capacity to generalize their findings, let alone know if the benefits persist. They also had no control sample. Nevertheless, they are encouraged by the observation that the increased capacity to spot a fake extended across demographics and, perhaps most importantly, political orientations.